In many companies, people are promoted into leadership positions because they were top-notch performers in their previous role. Being an individual performer, however, is very different from being a leader and requires a different skill set that all too often has not been deliberately cultivated. Similarly, in the startup world, many people become founders because they want to solve a problem and because they love creating products, not because they are great managers and leaders. Teachers, though, are unique. The demands and experience of teaching, and the skills and knowledge necessary to become a great teacher, make great teachers particularly great leaders. Here’s why:
1. Great teachers know how to create a strong company culture
Ask a great teacher how they create a classroom culture that inspires every student to do their best and they will be able to very clearly tell you the specific systems, structures, and social norms they implement to ensure that their classroom is filled with only excellence and joy. Great teachers bring the same ability to create a strong culture to any other organization. They know how to build the systems, structures, and norms necessary to motivate colleagues, attract talent, build community, and drive that community towards a collective mission.
2. Great teachers know how to set high expectations
Great teachers help students set big audacious goals and teach them the skills they need to accomplish those goals. When their students fail, great teachers don’t blame the student, they ask themselves, “How could I have set clearer expectations and provided better coaching and resources so that my student would have been set up for success?” These are all the marks of a great leader who sets high expectations for their colleagues, bosses, and direct reports and who helps them meet, then exceed, those expectations.
3. Great teachers prioritize what really matters
Teaching is ultimately about the long-term well-being of children five, ten, fifteen, thirty years down the line. Great teachers can sift through the thousands of things they could be doing to decide on the handful of things that truly make a difference. They also know when to sacrifice potential short-term gains on less meaningful metrics in support of their student’s long-term development. As leaders, great teachers make decisions that are in the long-term interests of their company and can properly say no to the thousands of potential distractions that do not move the company closer towards fulfilling its vision.
4. Great teachers plan purposefully
Student learning happens because great teachers very clearly plan out what skills and knowledge their students need to master in order to be successful in school and in life, how to motivate their students to master that body of knowledge and skills, and what activities will create the conditions necessary for student learning. Every moment of every day in a great teacher’s classroom is purposeful. Great teachers make great leaders that know how to plan for the success of their company’s mission and vision.
5. Great teachers execute
Teachers deliver, every day. They meet a deadline, every day. They also look at data to reflect on the strength of their execution and are unafraid to change whatever they need to in order to improve. Great teachers are great leaders who are masters of translating mission, vision and strategy into action.
6. Great teachers know how to learn constantly
Teachers become great through a process of continued development. Talk to a great teacher and you will find that he or she is always in the middle of revamping something, whether its the classroom library, grading system, or parent engagement strategies. In novel situations, great teachers become great leaders who approach work with humility and the desire to learn.
7. Great teachers persevere
Teachers who survive their first year, then thrive in subsequent years, do so because they come with or learn incredible perseverance. Unlike most professions, which place entry-level employees in positions where they are pure performers and where they have a manager who is ultimately responsible for their work, first-year teachers are immediately given the full responsibilities of their profession, thirty direct reports (aka children) to manage, and are held fully accountable for their class’s performance. Give a great teacher clear expectations for what they can accomplish, the space to learn, and the ownership to really make a difference, and they become great leaders who persevere until they get the job done.
8. Great teachers are resourceful
Teachers often work in very difficult environments, but great teachers never let that stop them from helping their students reach their goals. If funding doesn’t exist for crucial resources, teachers will raise money on sites like DonorsChoose.org or advocate for changes in funding priorities. If they need to learn more about a subject matter, they connect with experts in those fields. If some bureaucracy doesn’t work for their students, great teachers learn how to navigate around it. Great teachers are great leaders who never let an obstacle stop them from reaching their goals, they just find a way to creatively sidestep, reimagine, or drill their way through.
9. Great teachers empathize
Great teachers understand the socioemotional needs of their students and their students’ family members. They know that people need to feel safe, and loved, and calm, in order to learn and grow. When students struggle, great teachers engage in deep collaborative problem-solving to help get them on the right track, whether the solution is ultimately a new pair of glasses so the students can see the board, a heart-to-heart that helps the student feel safe, or a note-taking strategy that helps the student process his or her learning. Great teachers are great leaders who will be similarly empathetic with their colleagues and employees. You know a great leader by the people they impact, just like you know a great teacher by the lives of the students they’ve taught.